Penn leads the way in helping Philly schools

Penn student Shannon Dailey gives a recorder lesson at Lea School. In September, the university launched 12 in-school programs and 12 after-school programs, all coordinated by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Penn student Shannon Dailey gives a recorder lesson at Lea School. In September, the university launched 12 in-school programs and 12 after-school programs, all coordinated by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Posted: April 24, 2013

This story has been updated.

IN THE LATE 1990s, the kids at Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Locust streets lacked a library. A few years later, the University of Pennsylvania built them one.

The university, which had a relationship with Lea dating to 1960, secured donors to fund construction of a space and procure books, computers and audiovisual equipment for the K-to-8 school.

The Lea affiliation is one of seven that Penn has with disustrict schools, including its best-known partnership with the Penn Alexander School on Spruce Street near 42nd.

Penn's program of helping schools in West Philly is by far the most extensive of any of the city's large universities. The others - Temple, Drexel, La Salle, Saint Joseph's - also work with schools in their neighborhoods, but their levels of engagement vary.

All of which raises a couple of important questions:

Are the city's universities doing enough as tax-exempt citizens? Can they do more to help out the city's schools, which are in financial crisis?

The schools' situation turned bleaker last week, when Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district might be forced to cut arts, music, sports and other extracurricular activities if requested funds from the state and city aren't received.

How best to help?

Temple, Drexel, La Salle, Saint Joseph's and Penn all offer degrees in education, and all do varying degrees of outreach in their neighborhoods. Tutoring and mentoring programs are common forms of outreach, but some Philly education advocates say that's not enough.

"They have graduate schools. This is their responsibility. This is what they're supposed to do," said Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education.

The outreach is appreciated, she said, but "there's no substitute for taxes and financial support."

But Drexel official Lucy Kerman believes in noncash giving, like after-school programs run by Drexel staff for nearby Powel and McMichael schools.

"We are contributing our expertise and our partnership, not funds," said Kerman, vice provost of community and university partnerships. "We believe our contributions are more extensive than that."

Now is the time to start giving back to district schools, said Susan Gobreski, director of the nonpartisan group Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

"Every person who believes they work to serve the community needs to be thinking, 'How can I help?' " Goreski said.

"How can I help at this time of crisis? How can we contribute in dollars, in time and expertise and capacity? So every head of a university should be sitting down with the [city] leaders and saying, 'We've decided to step up. And here's what we think we can do.' "

In the process, some say, the universities often can benefit as much as the schools.

For example, by investing in schools, particularly Penn Alexander, Penn has made West Philadelphia a "more safe and more desirable" place for its employees and students, said Phil Goldsmith, a former city managing director who served as interim schools chief in 2001.

The area then becomes a marketing tool to attract faculty and employees, he added.

Penn Alexander's model

Even with its stellar reputation, Penn Alexander at times has been a source of controversy for the university and for the Spruce Hill community where the school is located.

Securing a space in kindergarten has turned into a sport over the years, resulting in a dayslong wait to register at the school. In the last few years, kids have been turned away because there weren't enough seats.

For those who can't get in, the district alternative is the Lea School. Teamwork has been key there in the last few years among school leaders, parents, community members and Penn officials.

Community groups including the Garden Court Community Association, the Walnut Hill Community Association and the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools consistently asked Penn officials for support at the school, Bryan said.

In September, after several meetings with principal Lisa Bell-Chiles, Home and School Association president Maurice Jones and the groups, Penn launched 12 in-school programs and 12 after-school programs, all coordinated by Penn's Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

Among the new programs is PennSmiles, an oral-health outreach initiative for students and parents and an after-school music program that teaches violin to second- through fourth-graders.

Drexel in action

Drexel is focused on two district schools in West Philadelphia: Powel in Powelton Village and McMichael in Mantua.

The university has given $150,000 to McMichael to pay for an organized-recess program and a school-safety consultant, said Drexel's Kerman.

The university also gives $100,000 to help fund Mantua in Action, a daily after-school program at McMichael and two Mantua recreation centers. The city and Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative are partners.

For context, the university had a pooled endowment of $536 million as of June 2011. And, according to its 2011 tax records, Drexel awarded 1,860 scholarships to international students and those living in North America, valued at $26.4 million.

Are district students getting enough from the university?

Senior vice president Brian T. Keech provided a list of what the school gives district and charter schools. The list also revealed that, through an agreement with the city, "Drexel pays the property tax to support the School District of Philadelphia."

Explorers 'adopt' Logan

Project Teamwork, a group of athletes from La Salle, has devoted 2,500 hours to coaching and mentoring students at Logan Elementary School, at Lindley Avenue near 17th in Logan.

The group and the university's alumni network have painted the school's facilities and cleaned up its grounds.

"Most of what we give out is in terms of human capital," said Edward A. Turzanski, counsel to the president of La Salle.

Is that enough from a school with a $73 million endowment?

"We would love to have what our colleagues at Penn have," Turzanski said, "but we don't have their endowment."

Turzanski said La Salle is a school "struggling to find ways to pay [its] bills."

"We have to provide lots of institutional aid" - merit or need-based grants from the university - "so that students can afford to attend," he said.

The university gave out $16.4 million in institutional aid to 968 full-time undergraduate students from Philadelphia.

"I'm very sympathetic to the plight of the city, to public education and to Archdiocesan education," Turzanski said. "We know it. We're going through it ourselves."

Owl research

Temple works with four North Philadelphia schools - Dunbar, Duckery, Meade and Ferguson - to provide student teachers and interns. The university also ran a book drive to supply the Dunbar library with newer books.

The university's College of Education also conducts research at Dunbar, bringing resources to the school, said the dean, James Earl Davis.

"I think . . . it's part of our social contract" to help district schools, Davis said. "We're neighbors, and Temple brings resources to the table. . . . It's incumbent upon us to adhere to that social contract."


Corrections: Both Susan Gobreski and the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools were misidentified in an earlier version of this story.


On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

Online: ph.ly/DNEducation

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